SI Vault
Robert W. Creamer
March 25, 1974
The lights go up in the Big Town, and Babe Ruth speeds into the record book, into the affections of the multitude and, on one memorable spring day, smack into jail
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March 25, 1974

Hit Opening In New York

The lights go up in the Big Town, and Babe Ruth speeds into the record book, into the affections of the multitude and, on one memorable spring day, smack into jail

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He bought a succession of splendid automobiles, in which he got into trouble regularly. He ignored traffic signals and speed limits when he drove from the Ansonia to the ball park and was often stopped by the police. More often than not, the cop, impressed with his catch, would chat for a few moments, issue a jovial warning and send Ruth on his way. On June 8, 1921 Ruth was racing along Riverside Drive in his maroon sports car when he was stopped for the second time in little more than a month. The cop took him directly to traffic court. Ruth did not protest, except when the policeman, obviously not a baseball fan, said he did not believe he was really Babe Ruth. In court the magistrate fined him $100, which Babe paid by whipping a hundred off the top of the roll in his pocket. The magistrate also sentenced him to a day in jail. The court attendants, finding this all very amusing, escorted Ruth to the Mulberry Street jail in downtown Manhattan. They explained that the Babe would not have to serve 24 hours. A "day" ended at four p.m., and one-day prisoners brought in during the morning were released at that hour in the afternoon. Since the ball game did not start until 3:15, that meant Ruth would be able to make part of it. He phoned the ball park, had his uniform brought to the jail, put it on in his cell and put on his street suit, an impressive dove-colored cutaway, over it. His car was parked at the jail's exit. He told a cellmate, "I'm going to have to go like hell to get to the game. Keeping you late like this makes you into a speeder."

The cops basked in the glow of their famous visitor's presence, and the word spread around. Hundreds of people gathered outside. A photographer on a fire escape across the street tried to get Ruth's picture behind bars, but without success. At four o'clock the crowds were pushed back, and a phalanx of police led Babe through the basement and out to his car. A motorcycle escort led him uptown. The trip from downtown Manhattan to the Polo Grounds, nine miles through New York traffic, was made in 18 minutes. Babe stripped off his suit in the car and came through the gate in center field in uniform to a huge ovation. The Yankees were losing 3-2 when he arrived, and while Ruth did nothing at bat himself the club rallied to win 4-3.

Ruth enjoyed the vulgar humor of dugout and clubhouse even when he was the butt of it. As the ultimate riposte in some broad horseplay, his old friend Mike McNally, another of those who came from the Red Sox to the Yankees, put manure in a hard straw hat belonging to Ruth, and when the Babe breezily donned the hat the manure spilled down over his head and shoulders. Half furious, half laughing at the indignity, Ruth cleaned himself off, mopped his clothes and hurried to join Helen at a New York courthouse, where he was involved in a minor lawsuit. People usually crowded around him, but now he noticed they were sidling away. Suddenly, his big nostrils sniffed, and his face reddened. Abruptly, he settled the case, grabbed Helen and said, "Let's get out of here." Oldtimers say he never wore a hard straw hat or anything but a cap after that.

In July 1920 Ruth took his auto, a big four-door touring sedan, on a Yankee road trip to Philadelphia and Washington. When the games in Washington were over, Ruth started driving back to New York with Helen, a rookie outfielder named Frank Gleich, a second-string catcher named Fred Hofmann and Charley O'Leary, an old infielder who was now a coach under Huggins. Such company was typical for Ruth, whose varying friends over the years were often rookies or fringe members of the roster.

The trip was a jolly one, with songs, much laughter and occasional stops for sips of bootleg liquor. Babe was driving, which he did with ´┐Żlan and exuberance and not too much attention to the minor vagaries of the road. The narrow highway weaved and curved its way into Pennsylvania. It was night, perhaps two in the morning, and Ruth was singing at the wheel. He was always unduly impressed by the musical quality of his rich bass voice, and he was really letting it all out in the soft summer night. Just outside the hamlet of Wawa, near Philadelphia, the road curved sharply. Babe was driving much too fast and could not make the curve. He hit the brakes, the car skidded, spun off the road and turned over. O'Leary and Helen were thrown from the car, Helen onto relatively soft dirt at the side of the road, O'Leary onto its hard surface.

Ruth squirmed out of the wreckage. Gleich and Hofmann were O.K. Helen was bruised, her stockings almost torn off, but she was not otherwise hurt. O'Leary, lying on his back in the middle of the road, appeared to be unconscious, possibly dead. Ruth, stricken with fear and remorse, ran to him and fell on his knees.

"Oh, my God," he cried. "Oh, my God. Oh, God, bring Charley back. Don't take him. I didn't mean it."

He lifted O'Leary's head, and Charley's eyes opened.

Ruth's face brightened.

"Speak to me, Charley. Speak to me."

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